Eugene Peterson and the Cajun Potato Dance

Last week, Eugene Peterson died after entering Hospice Care. Over ten years ago, I asked Eugene to come “do the Cajun two-step” when I missed a writing workshop with him in order to lead a mission trip to New Orleans following Hurricane Katrina.  Below is the essay I wrote at that time.  For his answer, read the postscript.

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Beneath my knees, two shelves up, ten inches below the water line, is a book I wrote years ago. It rests now between Ruth Duck’s Flames of the Spirit and Celebrating Holy Week in a Post Holocaust World by Henry F. Knight. I am here, in these last minutes of our trip, dusting shelves that look to have been barely touched in the past two years. It is unbelievable to me that the dust has not been stirred up by the fray of thirty clammy young men scurrying each day to change their sweat soaked clothes after a hard day’s work rebuilding New Orleans. The church remembers this room, pre-Katrina, as their library. For us it is a changing room and for those brave enough to endure the smell and desperate enough to find a quiet place of rest in this church crammed with sixty volunteers, it is a sleeping room. There is no card catalog in the place. It is possible that no one in the church knows my book is on the shelf. There is a very tired Febreeze, so worn from effecting the change in tang in the room we were quick to toss it out, but then realized despite the years of wear it still had a little of its hum left and this room sure needed some.

I am thinking about writing this week. If I had not been here in New Orleans with sixty youth and adults from my church, I would have been enjoying a week in a writing workshop with Eugene Peterson. It would have been wonderful. When telling a friend my decision to go to New Orleans after the invitation for the week of study came, she said, “I understand your decision. But isn’t Peterson one of the most prolific theological writers of our generation?” She probably didn’t realize I had cried for two days after the call came in. I knew there was only one answer for the decision. “No, but thank you. Maybe next time,” I still couldn’t believe I had uttered the words. The pastor in me would do the right thing and go to New Orleans, but the writer in me would long for learning with Eugene. I’ve given up a lot. Was this a missed opportunity, or did another writer have a different plot line to unfold?

So instead of gathering writing samples in preparation for the workshop, I was writing devotion manuals for our evening worship. Instead of packing retreat clothes, I was packing tools and insurance forms and letters from parents to their kids. Instead of booking a flight to Minnesota, I was arranging and rearranging and arranging once again air travel for sixty. Instead of meeting with other pastors who have a heart for writing, I was writing worship alongside our team of teens for a congregation devastated by the storm. Instead of working on chapters and first drafts, I was entrusting our team to the work projects organized by the grassroots ministry of a church whose mission was rewritten overnight. And instead of sitting around a table, sharing a meal with Eugene Peterson, I found myself with a potato pressed to my forehead doing the Cajun potato dance.

I packed my bags and headed south. After arriving in New Orleans, a local musician comes by to get us dancing after a long day of travel. We learn the two-step, the Zydeco culture, play with the Cajun instruments and compete in the Cajun potato dance. My husband says, “I’m sure they teach every northerner the Cajun potato dance and watch them dance all the way through town.” I am less concerned about entrusting ourselves to our dance instructor, and much more concerned about the size of the potatoes. If a bunch of teenagers are placing these potatoes between their foreheads and dancing, what size are these potatoes? I vote for G-rated potatoes, four inches in length. Bruce Daigrepont, Cajun musician, gives them R-rated russets. I sigh, pull the gum from my mouth, tear it in half and attach the potato to my forehead and to my partner’s. If only Eugene Peterson could see me now.

The rib of the rubboard washes over us, and the two-step begins to seep into my bones. I pray to settle into this experience and leave the disappointment over a lost opportunity behind. New Orleans and her people have lost so much more. “Lâche pas la patate,”shouts Bruce Daigrepont, Cajun that he is. He’s been speaking Cajun French all night to stump the kids. Lâche pas la patate. Don’t drop the potato. No problem, I think, even as my gummy potato drops and leaves my right toe throbbing. He explains, “Dat’s Cajun for sayin’, ‘Don’t give up.’” I grab my red russet and try again.

Little did we know that night, how much we would need his word of encouragement the next day after the disaster tour.   Mile after mile we saw little sign of life. The Ninth ward? Not one living soul. A grocery store? None for miles on end. An ice cream shop? None open. Neighborhoods decimated at every income level. A member of our team finds a driver’s license. Another, an abandoned doll. Someone steps on a set of house keys. These simple ties to sanity abandoned in a desperate flee for safety. Our group spent just two hours touring the city and we were exhausted and hopeless, the citizens of New Orleans had been living this disaster for two years. Where did they find hope? Somehow we needed more than a potato and a clever Cajun phrase.

That evening the devotion team led us in worship and prayers. “Write down where you experienced hopelessness today,” we are instructed. And so the ripples of prayers unfold. Where to begin in such a ghost town when faced with such a great task? These prayers are written on scraps of paper. I found the enormosity of our tasks troubling. I thought this because it would only be a small part of an extremely troubled city. And it would be impossible to help everyone in one week. Please help us out. And, What did the children do during the flood? How did this tragedy affect their lives? What do they think of the world now? These prayers are immersed in water, and the scraps are fished out to spell a singular word visible as we peer over the balcony onto the still rugless sanctuary floor.   HOPE.  We see that hope is born not of something other than what already exists, but is constructed of the bits and pieces we are left holding in our hands. We see the possibility for a whole new world to exist within a single word.

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Each day we go out and work in the world. Each evening we reflect and dwell in the word. As the two spheres of world and word intersect, we see our theme “What a Wonderful World” come to life. Louis Armstrong, may have penned, “I see fields of green” to give expression to the wonders of the world, but we see different wonders displayed. Plugging in his washer and dryer into currents of electricity that work after two years of waiting, Ray said was “wonderful.”

Our theme verse is from Psalm 31, verse 21. Months ago, our planning team just happened to pick The Message translation of the text because its words echoed our theme, “What a Wonderful World.” The translation calls out, “Blessed God! His love is the wonder of the world. Trapped by a siege, I panicked.” We explore with our group how New Orleans is under siege, and how the storm of that siege calls up other storms in marriages and family systems, in governmental agencies and even within the church. We ask them to keep a list of the places of siege and the places of wonder. And so, surprisingly even here in New Orleans, I end up hanging out with Eugene along with some impressionable teens.

I lived with Psalm 31 that week, and turned to it for guidance and encouragement. You might even say I got to dance with the Bible that week, well that is, Mr. Bible. Martin Bible from Opelousas who goes dancing three or four nights a week at Mulate’s along with his wife and friends to stay young and healthy, to have fun, and especially after the storm to make visitors like us feel welcome. He taught me the alligator waltz, a back and forth sway of arms and legs. I plodded along, as I sometimes do, when I am hand in hand with the Bible, gaining my footing and struggling for grace.

After dancing that night, we sit down in our devotions to look at Psalm 31. Twice in the first five verses, we learn that a cliff is a place of safety. I’m not saying anything, one of girls offers, but isn’t our pastor named Cliff? Hasn’t he been a place of refuge and safety in the midst of the storm? What would a professor of Old Testament say to this one? There are things you learn in exegesis class about proper and improper ways to read the Bible, but then there are things you learn in a flooded church, surrounded by waterlogged pews, 59 smelly other adults, hungry for a word from the Lord. And then, let me tell you when I got to the end of the passage which I had read a hundred times before in preparation for the trip and saw the words “Don’t give up,” there in the text, I wept. I wept because the phrase, Lâche pas la patate, was no longer about red russets, but about the reality of a disaster before us. I wept for the city of New Orleans. I wept for the lone man alone in his neighborhood. He was the one who mouthed, “Thank you for coming,” as he saw our vans drive by on the disaster tour.   I wept for Bradley, who lost his dog to the storm, after a neighbor tried to protect his dog and 28 others safe on the roof of a house for five days straight. Bradley’s dog died hours before the rescue team arrived. I wept for our leadership team, men who have been hospitalized, homes that have been broken, folks who search for meaning in daily life asking daily what it means not to give up when life tells you otherwise. I wept for myself, the series of circumstances I am faced with that I would never have chosen, but that call out for characterization deeper than I personally know how to write.   I wept in humility as I see the character of others who have emerged from the storm.

Tell our story. Don’t give up. Don’t forget us.  As these phrases rippled through our days, hearing the same thing over and over again from all we encounter, it becomes clear our words matter. The way we tell this story will make a difference for those who are living this story. The ways we get those around us to tell their story, to give voice to their experience, will provide a platform for healing and for change. Here is an opportunity for a writing workshop complete with texts in draft form, subtexts of drama and disappointment, contexts of characters and community. And the text before this workshop? It is one where the narrative arc of the story went belly flop in the flood. We all saw it unfold on CNN, where the rounded cover of the Superdome failed to protect all who needed to be under its bow. So tragic in fact was this trajectory of failure, we all cried as the residents of New Orleans were caught in its hopeless trench pawing to reemerge. With the collapse of that narrative arc (or should I say Noahic ark) a life boat is needed and perhaps what is most life-giving is the words we find to tell the story. Our words matter and the way our youth discover their voice and articulate what they have seen and heard in their days in what was once The Big Easy will make a difference.

Tell our story, the ice cream truck driver, the plumber, the architect down the street, and Yolanda one of the home owners for whom we are working all remind us. I realize then that New Orleans depends not just upon our work, but also upon our word. Without our telling the story of both the hopelessness and the hope, there would be no rewrite. And so the writing workshop begins.

Don’t give up. As the devotions continue to unfold into the week, I bring the passionate, visceral call of writing to my work as a pastor and find new energy. For some, simply getting sixteen year old boys to say something beyond “Fine” or “whatever” is a miracle. They need to be able to tell the story.  How was your trip?  It was good mom.  Tell me more.  Can I go take a nap?  Easing out that narrative thread becomes a call. Others are more pliable – can you show, not tell? God is in the details.  Paint a picture.  Tell the story. Can you deepen the characterization? Can you give fuller expression to the story?   We are in a town of writers, but maybe this is a youth group of writers as well. And so I start to ask them questions – If you were writing a book about this week, what would it be called and why?  Which character we met this week would you like to explore more aspects of their life and why?  What would the opening line of your essay, novel, lyric or poem me?  Would you write a novel or a song about our experience? These I ask along with the highs and the lows, the presence of Christ, the challenge of the day, the prayer requests.  These questions energize the conversation and my calling in the midst of the storm. New Orleans will be rewritten by our words.

Don’t forget us. And so I ask, What book would they write? Vaughn says, “A Substantial Drop”- when the ability to make a difference seems impossible, our drops do matter, he contends. What would be the first image they use to tell the story? John says, “The wall of steel that is still up in that tree two years later. There has got to be a story there. It represents so much, particularly our steely inability to respond when needed.” What picture would be on the cover of your book? Caitlyn says, “A juxtaposition of three homes – the first in total disrepair, the second is the one that we are in the process of working on, the third is almost complete due to the work of a volunteer woman from Maine who spends as much time here as possible, not just rebuilding, but rebuilding with decorative touches that add to people’s appreciation of their new home.” Which character would you want to explore? An adult advisor who says, “Robert, who started crying when he said he nearly lost it all, his home, his children, his marriage. He has had to rebuild everything.” What metaphor would you use within your story to show the damage done by the storm? Ellie remembers, “Hearing Bradley tell us about finding photographs in his bedroom floating on the flood waters. At first he was glad to see something had remained, but then the colors bled from the photo as he lifted it from the water. So much of people’s lives bled into the flood. So much was washed away.”   Telling the story – is the only ink New Orleans has. Our words paint the picture of a world that was lost, of communities and churches, schools and streets, families and friends. Don’t forget us. So here we are, fifty-nine new authors, with ink in hand, ready to write the world.

Writing, according to Wikipedia, “is the preservation and the preserved text on a medium, with the use of signs or symbols.” Here we find that the preservation of New Orleans depends on the signs and symbols we choose to use to tell the story. Don’t forget us. We hear over and over again. And so we pray for the right word.

The way this youth group tells the story, engages in dialogue, develops the characters, frames the narrative arc, paints a picture of the situation will change the way the world about them understands the disaster so far removed. And so we practice in ways only a youth group can do. We send emails to our prayer partners and parents. We post updates on the webpage. We write thank you letters to all who have offered support. We craft paper plate awards, naming in humor and with encouragement the traits we celebrate in each person. We prepare sermons for worship. We partner in worship with congregation members in threes, where one is an active listener, one is a recorder of prayers and the other is an initiator of conversation. In that setting in the sanctuary, the questions of our teens usher in paragraphs of response by those who have lived stories we never will. We write song lyrics. I am broken, the lyrics begin. We scribble on scraps of paper prayers, places where we are broken, places that need hope, people we will remember. We sign pages of affirmations. Ever since fifth grade I’ve considered him to be my best friend. He is my role model for what I would like to be without my turrets and ADHD. We write letters of affirmation to each other. So that one of the young men in our group, who was suspended for smoking weed as the school year came to a close, is affirmed (in an ironic twist only a clever writer could create) for devoting forty hours to hacking down weeds in a flooded and overgrown field of eight foot weeds. You used your energy to the best of your ability to serve God and to serve neighbor. These letters give testament to how the recipient of the letter is a wonder of the world. I read these letters and cry tears that surface not from selfish longing as before, but a sense of deep belonging. In all of these activities, the underlying theme is not giving up. Our stories are shored up as they intersect the stories of Katrina. The residents of New Orleans rely on our words, alongside their words, to change their world.

We went home with bags made heavier by tears, sweat, grime, and a few souvenirs that didn’t seem as exciting at the end of the trip as they did in the beginning.  The scene in the novel would have described the chaos at the counter as we tried to rid ourselves of pounds. But the real weight was on our hearts, aching with words to tell the story as we go home.

Eugene, even the Montana mountain man that he is, would certainly have smelled better to hang out with that week then the sweat laden crew I was with in New Orleans. But what I thought would be grind and grim, became an opportunity for growth in my skills both as a pastor and a writer. Maybe my book wasn’t begun, but the first drafts of fifty-nine others certainly were. That book I hope to write one day can stay shelved in my heart. But what I hope all will read are the texts and pictures of those who took in the stories of New Orleans and are ready to tell them. Don’t forget us. Tell others our story. Eugene, if you want to go to a writing workshop that will help rewrite the world come with us next year to New Orleans. Will you be my partner for the Cajun potato dance? And even more so, will you partner with us to tell the story so we can discover what a world of difference a wonderful word makes?

After the writing workshop and the mission trip were complete, the leaders of the workshop sent Eugene this essay.  He wrote back a wonderful card with the wonderfully simple answer: Maybe.  Unfortunately, even then ten years ago, his health prevented him from such an endeavor.  While we never did the Cajun two-step, I will forever be grateful for his encouragement to keep writing.  

Long obedience, same direction.  Don’t forget us, tell our story.